(This article is written in Shaista Gohir's independent capacity).
Channel 4’s Dispatches programme shown on 14th February 2011, ‘Lessons in Hatred and Violence,’ showing children suffering physical punishment at the hands of madressa teachers did not surprise me. It reminded me of why I send my children to a little old lady at her home to learn the Quran.
A leading Muslim intellectual, Dr Ghayussudin Siddiqui, published a report in 2006 that highlighted the levels of abuse taking place. Although increasing numbers of mosques and madressas have adopted child protection procedures since then, the incidents in the programme show that so much more needs to be done to safeguard Muslim children. The standards vary considerably across the country from those who are doing an excellent job in protecting the children in their care to those who don’t have any procedures at all or have them in place but don’t put them into practice.
Examples of both physical and sexual abuse continue to surface. Recently an imam in Stoke on Trent was found guilty of sexually assaulting two boys. Muslim communities are not holding religious teachers and institutions to account. They are held in such high esteem – making it difficult for those who do want to speak out against them. Muslim parents would not tolerate abuse in state schools, so why accept lower standards of behaviour from religious institutions? I have heard of situations when abuse has come to light, parents have simply removed their child or the teacher has been allowed to move on.
Corporal punishment may be a common teaching method employed in other parts of the world and parents themselves may have grown up here experiencing physical chastisement in mosques but continuing to accept violence as part and parcel of how these institutions operate, must stop – children have rights too too in Islam which certainly does not allow child abuse. All corporal punishments were outlawed in state schools 25 years ago and in private schools over ten years ago. It is about time the law is extended to protect children attending faith schools too. When the Labour Party was in power they refused to close the loophole in the legislation despite a number of MPs campaigning for the change. It seems that Muslim votes were more important than the safety of Muslim children. I hope the Coalition government acts swiftly to amend the law to prevent smackingin faith based educational settings.
I welcome the NSPCC’s timely national conference to be held on 17th March aimed at improving the safeguarding of Muslim children. The conference is the first of its kind and has been planned with input from a number of Muslim organisations including the Muslim Women’s Network UK. This could act as a catalyst for more voluntary, community and statutory organisations to work together to promote the welfare of children.
The Dispatches programme also showed footage of a preacher at Darul Uloom School in Birmingham promoting religious intolerance and encouraging sectarianism. The school claims they had no knowledge that offensive remarks had been made and as soon as they were aware, action was taken. However, it is worrying that hate preachers, who are often charismatic speakers, are gaining access to young impressionable minds which may not always be through faith schools or mosques. I am concerned as there is small but growing band of youth who are intolerant towards people of other faiths and other Muslims who are regarded as too liberal. Anti-female rhetoric is on the rise too and advancements that have been made on women’s rights are also being undermined.
Although the programme was well intentioned, the likelihood is that Islamophobes will use it as a tool to stereotype all Muslims as intolerant and violent while Muslim communities will go on the defensive and see this as another attempt to slander them. In the debate and discussion, Muslim children will be forgotten once again, with no one focusing on how best to protect them from both violence and extremist preachers.